I love a leap year.
In this era where nearly everything can be adjusted to suit standards that seem more exacting by the day, where we calculate our time down to the second on a regular basis and even a baby’s birth can be scheduled, there is something to be celebrated – something pleasingly archaic if slightly bizarre – in the continuing existence of February 29th.
The only down side is that it prolongs the end of this dreary month, which, as far as I am concerned, could not come soon enough.
Just when I thought I had endured this balmy winter largely unscathed, I was beset recently by the dreaded seasonal slump – I’ve mentioned it before, and I even had the temerity to suggest that I had avoided it this year; but that was sadly not the case (as evidenced in part by the recent waffle-mania that has overtaken our house).
So we aren’t celebrating the extra day in February, exactly.
It’s been an eventful few years – which coming from me, having lived a fairly unconventional and action-packed life, is saying a great deal – and although there were some harrowing times that I could certainly have done without, most of the time I marvel at how far we have come.
This recipe takes me back to the early days of my first pregnancy, and the beginning of my time here: a time when I felt utterly unmoored, far from everyone who knew me well and overwhelmed by what I had undertaken when I decided to embrace this new life, new love, new neighbourhood – and vastly empty new home.
But before it did I made a batch of socca one cold, bright March afternoon and ate it off a paper towel with my fingers, sitting on the floor all alone and looking out the bare kitchen window and shaping, in my mind’s eye, a life.
A long way, indeed.
I have made one addition to to this simple recipe, and fiddled somewhat with the method, so if you are a stickler you’ll find the original here. This is a southern French dish, ideally paired with cold rose served in tumblers in the heat of an August afternoon, but for some reason it always comes calling for me at this time of year.
2c chickpea flour
2 tsp coarse sea salt
2 tsp ground cumin (I am currently obsessed with roasted cumin and would recommend that if you can find it, but regular ground cumin is of course more than fine)
a generous grinding of black pepper
2c warm water
1/4c extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, halved lengthwise and then thinly sliced, lengthwise
2-4 tbsp olive oil (not necessarily extra virgin, since it’s going into a very hot pan)
Sift flour into a large mixing bowl. Add salt, cumin and pepper and stir to combine, then slowly whisk in water to form a smooth batter. Whisk in extra virgin olive oil. Cover and let the batter sit for as long as possible, ideally an hour or two and overnight if it comes to that.
Set a 10-inch cast iron skillet on a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Stir onions into batter.
When oven and pan are hot, remove pan from heat; swirl about a tablespoon of olive oil into the pan, then add a scant ladleful of batter, tilting the pan so that the batter reaches the edges and thinly coats the bottom. Return pan to oven and cook 8-10 minutes, until batter is golden around the edges. Gently flip the socca in the pan; return to the oven and cook a further 3-4 minutes, until golden and crispy on both sides.
Slide socca onto a plate and eat (or serve) immediately.
Repeat with remaining olive oil and batter.
Makes six beautiful socca.
I have mixed feelings on the subject of Lent.
I come from a family whose participation in organized religion has ebbed and flowed over the years, and my interest in being a member of any church is just about non-existent.
My grasp of the Catholic doctrine is murky at best, my idea being that it involves lots of sin with very little redemption; a fair amount of kneeling; incense; and confession-hearing priests who are closeted in more than just the literal sense.
And abstention isn’t, nor has it ever been, really my thing.
But these last few months have been challenging ones for my family and me, and I tend in times of high anxiety to eat the sort of foods that offer all kinds of comfort but somewhat little in the way of nutritional benefit (I’ve said it before, and I say it again: how do people who are not stress eaters cope with their stress?).
Essentially I have been existing quite happily since Christmas on bread, cheese, and wine. Which isn’t a bad thing on the short term, but I have noticed lately that my appearance has come to resemble that of the baked goods I’ve been enjoying:
I have become a little doughy.
I feel compelled to mention at this point (is it the guilt talking?) that my baking is, on the whole, pretty healthy. I use spelt flour and coconut oil and nearly always replace the sugar with apple juice concentrate or agave nectar.
But even still, too much of a good thing remains the very definition of excess, and I think that may be what we are dealing with here.
And so the other day, after my children and I had feasted the night before on stacks of fluffy banana pancakes drenched in maple syrup in honour of Pancake Tuesday, I decided to give up flour for Lent.
That’s right, even my spelt flour. Even my healthy baking. Most certainly the warm biscuits and bread sticks that take no time to prepare and can turn just about any meal into a feast.
For forty days and forty nights.
I can always pull my recently-neglected Babycakes cookbook off the shelf.
And I’ll still have my wine.
I love this dish, which features my beloved ras al hanout (which I bought here), for many reasons, but at the moment mostly because it doesn’t require any kind of bready accompaniment (although it is awfully good with couscous).
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp unsalted butter
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 large onions, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, sliced
1 heaping tbsp ras al hanout
2 tsp ground cardamom
1 tbsp tomato paste
1/2c chicken broth (or a little more, as needed)
1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes
1 14 oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/2c coarsely chopped dates
1/2c golden raisins
zest of an orange
In a large, deep saute pan, heat oil and butter over medium-high heat. Add chicken thighs to pan and cook, turning once, until golden brown on both sides. Using a slotted spoon, remove chicken from pan and set aside.
Add onion and garlic to pan and cook, stirring frequently, until softened. Stir in ras al hanout and cardamom and cook a few minutes more, stirring, until onions are beginning to colour. Add tomato paste to pan and stir briefly before adding 1/2c chicken stock. Stir and scrape up any brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan.
Return chicken to pan, then add tomatoes with their juice, chickpeas, dates, raisins, and orange zest. If mixture appears on the dry side, add a little more broth. Stir to combine and let mixture come briefly to a boil before reducing heat to minimum. Cover and simmer about 45-60 minutes, until flavours have blended and chicken is very tender.
In an ideal world, at this point I would turn off the stove and let this stew sit and, well, stew, for a couple of hours, and then reheat it just before serving. I expect you could also use a slow cooker here. But I don’t think either is necessary to the success of the dish.
Serves 4, generously, and 6 if accompanied by couscous.